Wednesday night the Chiefs made a deal with the New York Jets to acquire Darron Lee for a 2020 sixth-round pick. Lee, a former first-round pick of the Jets, just had his best season according to PFF with a career-best 72.4 overall rating, an almost 30 point improvement from his previous two seasons with the Jets. Now, I’m not here to tell you that PFF is the end all be all when it comes to players improving or playing well. But it’s a good starting point to look at so we can get an overall idea of the player he was in 2018.
The 24-year old Lee is entering his fourth year in the NFL and was one of the best coverage linebackers in the league last year. Adding him to a linebacking core that was among the worst in coverage a year ago is a much-needed improvement in an area that is getting more important for linebackers. He recorded 3 interceptions in 2018, a drastic improvement after not having any his first two seasons.
One of the areas the Chiefs linebackers struggled, outside of when we saw Dorian O’Daniel in games, was getting to the flat quickly and cleanly. Speed is not exactly an area where Lee is lacking, he ran a 4.47 forty time at the combine a few years ago and his speed to get to the flat has been on display ever since.
Lee is comfortable in both man coverage and zone, and here he starts in a shallow zone, reading the offense and quarterback. He diagnoses the screen and from there, his speed is extremely evident. He gets to the wall of lineman quickly and has the ability to weave his way through traffic and get to the running back as he’s trying to establish some momentum. His tackling here is a little rough but at the end of the day, he gets the job done and blows up a, would have been, big play.
Nowadays, you can never have enough speed on defense, as offensive players get faster defenses will eventually catch up. Lee has that sideline to sideline speed essential to playing the run and pass in today’s NFL. But speed isn’t going to be the savior all the time, that’s where his physicality comes into play.
One of the things I have found to like about Lee is the physicality he plays with in man coverage. Tasked with bodying up the bigger Eric Ebron, Lee doesn’t back down to the challenge, not allowing him a free release at the line of scrimmage, and staying with him down the field. Staying in his back pocket, and continuing to be physical, helped him improve in man coverage. He showed this multiple times on film, and I love that. Matt House is going to have some fun with him.
The physicality he plays with can wear on offensive players, especially players that are usually given a free release at the line, and even if he misses an attempt to jam a running back or a tight end, he has the speed to recover and still make a play on the ball. His improvement in coverage comes from a conscious effort to be more physical and read the offense. Going into a contract year for him, this could pay some serious dividends for the Chiefs.
Being a linebacker, you are tasked with being able to cover backs and tight ends, as well as having to be the tackle-getters in the run game. The defensive line helps take up blocks and keep the linebackers clean so they can make tackles. Lee was not great in his first years at identifying where the play was going and getting to the hole. His ability to identify saw a major improvement, in my opinion, last year as well.
This was one of the more impressive things I saw out of Lee while going through his tape from 2018. If he can continue to improve like this in KC then there is a chance we could see an even better Lee in 2019. On the snap, he identifies two pulling blocks coming into the B gap to his side, so he takes on the block from both pulling players and gets slightly lower than both. By getting lower, it allows him to dig in and be much harder to move even by two guys that are bigger than him. This forces the running back to try and improvise and in doing so, runs right into the box safety.
Lee made this play by identifying the run, where the pullers were going, and being physical at the point of attack. His ability to take on the double team is something he didn’t want to do in his first few seasons in the NFL. This acceptance of doing dirty work sometimes is how he’s going to continue to improve as a linebacker and overall player in the NFL.
Lee doesn’t have the biggest frame for a linebacker, and something he’s struggled with has been getting off of blocks from lineman to make plays in the run game. But as he’s gotten more comfortable in the NFL, his feel for the game has improved dramatically.
Lee doesn’t make this play two years ago; getting engaged with offensive lineman didn’t usually end well for him. But this play is all about feel and then pure speed. On the snap, Lee reluctantly creeps up to the line and finds himself in a wall of offensive lineman and loses the running back. But he feels the field to his left opening up as the play develops. Assuming the running back is going to look for open space, he disengages from the block and accelerates toward LeSean McCoy. As one of the more elusive backs in the NFL, keeping him from getting to the edge is a difficult thing to accomplish. But with Lee’s pure speed and proper pursuit angle, he does exactly that and prevents a possible big gain from McCoy.
Pairing the ability to shed blocks more effectively with his improved play identification is one of the reasons I am excited to see him in Kansas City. The run defense for the last few years has been abysmal and adding a player that is still growing and showing signs of the game slowing down a bit for him could be a huge addition to the defense. Especially to the lackluster linebacking corps the Chiefs currently employ, they needed a talent injection and Lee provides that.
Being a young player still trying to improve and focus on getting better in the run defense, has left a few problems with play-action fakes. He struggled mightily tracking the ball in play action and any kind of play with what’s called “window dressing”. Here’s what I mean.
This play perfectly encapsulates the issues that Lee has with play-action. Too many times he will stick with the running back and lose the ball when the quarterback pulls it. On this play, it’s painfully obvious he loses the ball and the worst part is, he takes entirely too long to find it. The entire line is blocking to their right and the back stays with them. Lee is looking for the ball and stutter steps a bunch trying to find it. It’s a simple bootleg, and Lee gets fooled by Matt Barkley.
By the time Lee found the ball, it was being completed for a nice gain by the Bills who would go on to crush the Jets with Barkley at quarterback. It’s not a good look for Lee, who took a big step forward in his development in 2018. But it just goes to show that not everything happens at once for players. But since he is still so young, he has time to get it right and still enter his prime.
Lee was considered a bust after his first two seasons, and the Jets organization had written him off as such as evidenced by interim general manager Adam Gase netting only a sixth-round pick for Lee. A change of scenery could very well be what allows Lee to break free from all those first-round talent expectations, and take the next step in his development in the NFL. One of the biggest things I found while researching him was that he didn’t play less than 88% of the defensive snaps in any game he played in last year. He’s durable and reliable, a commodity that cannot be taken for granted in professional sports.
All in all, the Chiefs have pulled off another low risk, high reward move to help them in their quest for a Super Bowl title. Lee has all the makings of the prototypical linebacker in today’s game. Speed, athleticism, physicality, and durability are going to be his greatest assets and they will be added to a group that is lacking in that area. House and company are going to love getting their hands on this type of player and molding him into what they believe he could be.
Lee comes in and will compete for the Starting WILL linebacker job with O’Daniel. Depth at WILL linebacker was seriously lacking and Lee adds quite a bit of starting experience. I’ll tell you one thing, with all the traits he possesses, the improvement I’ve seen, and entering into a contract year for the young player, this could be the perfect storm to unlock the player the Jets thought he could be. I am looking forward to seeing what he becomes this year.